On this day in 1983, Rep. Harold Washington of Illinois resigned his seat in Congress, the day after being narrowly elected as Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
Washington had been the sixth in a series of black legislators from his inner-city district, beginning with Republican Oscar De Priest in 1928. He differed from his predecessors, however, in that
Heavily outspent by Jane Byrne, the incumbent, and by Richard Daley, the son of the late former mayor, Washington beat expectations by winning a three-way Democratic primary.
“The whole nation was watching, and Chicago sent a profound message out of the crucible of our city’s most trying election,” Washington said after his subsequent narrow victory in the general election against Republican Bernard Epton.
Epton’s campaign stressed, among other things, Washington’s prior conviction for his failure over 19 years to file federal income tax returns — he had paid the taxes, but had not filed returns. There was also ugly racial rhetoric throughout the bitterly nasty campaign, such as the appearance of “CHICONGO“ buttons.
Before entering Congress, Washington honed his political skills in the 15 years he served in the Illinois state Legislature. His break with the Democratic machine earned him support from many black voters, who shunned a patronage system that they believed had short-changed them.
After winning his congressional seat in 1980, Washington built a strong record on civil rights issues. He played a key role in insuring passage of an extension to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, maneuvering to beat back a series of weakening amendments.
By the time Washington faced reelection in 1982, he had cemented his popularity in Illinois’ 1st Congressional District. Byrne, his political nemesis, proved unable to find a serious candidate to run against him. Washington collected 250,000 signatures to get on the ballot, although only 610 — one-half of 1 percent of the voters in the prior election — would have sufficed.
On Nov. 25, 1987, Washington, 65, died suddenly from a heart attack while seated in his City Hall office, some seven months after he had won a second term. Thousands of Chicagoans attended his two-day viewing in the lobby of City Hall.
Since his death, various city facilities and institutions have been named or renamed after the late mayor, including a new building housing the main branch of the Chicago Public Library that has been named the Harold Washington Library Center.
On April 19, 1988, a ceremony was held changing the name of Loop College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, to Harold Washington College. Harold Washington Elementary School in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood is also named after him. A building on the campus of Chicago State University is named Harold Washington Hall.
Across from the Hampton House apartments in the South Side Hyde Park neighborhood where Washington lived, a city park was renamed Harold Washington Park. It is known for “Harold’s Parakeets,” a colony of feral monk parakeets that inhabits ash trees in the park.